Wayne Kelly, one of New York State's most popular and proficient boxing referees and a veteran of 26 world championship fights, died unexpectedly on Wednesday. He was 63.
Kelly, a Garden City resident, was recovering from major gall bladder surgery in September when he suffered a heart attack, according to former New York State Athletic Commission chairman Randy Gordon, whose first act in office was to license his longtime friend as a referee in 1988.
"I told him, 'You're going to be a great referee,' " Gordon recalled. "Wayne was a take-charge, no-nonsense referee. He let the fighters fight, and he was always in the gym working sparring sessions to stay sharp."
Kelly handled himself and the fighters so well because of his experience fighting professionally as a light-heavyweight from 1975-79, compiling a 4-3 record with 3 KOs. Because of his size, strength and confident demeanor, Kelly was considered especially adept at handling heavyweights.
His most famous bout was a nontitle affair between former champion Riddick Bowe and undefeated Andrew Golota on July 11, 1996, in the main arena at Madison Square Garden. Golota stunned onlookers by pummeling Bowe, but he also threw several low blows that drew repeated warnings from Kelly.
When Golota dropped Bowe with a low blow moments after a warning in the seventh round, Kelly had no choice but to disqualify him. Members of Bowe's entourage leaped into the ring and attacked Golota, who punched back, precipitating a riot.
There never was any question about Kelly's ability to handle a dangerous situation. He served in Vietnam as an Airborne Ranger lieutenant with the 5th Special Forces Group. Kelly was awarded the Purple Heart.
He returned to earn a psychology degree at Hofstra and became a counselor for the Town of Hempstead Services for the Aging.
"My father was by far the toughest individual I ever met in my life," said Ryan Kelly, 25, who is a social worker for the Town of Hempstead and an amateur heavyweight. "I just got finished building a boxing gym in the garage of his new house. We had plans of working out together . . . Boxing was our bond."
Kelly also is survived by his daughter, Jackie, 27, who is a teacher at the Marymount School in Manhattan.
Services are scheduled at the New Hyde Park Funeral Home at 506 Lakeville Rd. Viewing times on Friday and Saturday are from 2 to 4:30 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. with a religious service at 8 p.m. Saturday.
There will be a brief prayer service at 9 a.m. Monday at the funeral home before internment at Calverton National Cemetery.